None of this is happening.
I’m standing in the morgue at the Company’s facility. I should see my own image in the gleaming metal cabinets where they store all the bodies, but I have no reflection. I don’t know if I’m real. There are corpses laid out on the autopsy tables, crisp white sheets pulled up to their chins. On the far side of the room are Brian and West, two guys from my high school who were victims of an accident that the Company orchestrated. In front of me lies Carole, the soccer mom turned fearless warrior who sacrificed her own life to save mine. Blood seeps through the section of sheet that covers her abdomen. That’s where the sword that killed her went in.
She thought I was the one who could save the others. All it takes is a look around the morgue to know Carole was tragically wrong. There are at least a dozen bodies here; most of their faces I don’t recognize from the real world. Who knows how many cadavers are tucked away in the morgue’s metal drawers? The dead here come in all sizes and shapes and colors. But they all died as guinea pigs, their brains tinkered with and their bodies broken. All to beta test the Company’s new virtual reality technology. All to debug a goddamn video game.
The man who started it all is on the table next to Carole’s. Milo Yolkin, the Company’s boyish CEO and the inventor of Otherworld. Now he’s just another shriveled-up corpse. The mind that was hailed as one of the century’s greatest turned out to be no match for its own creation. Otherworld may have given Milo everything he’d been missing, but in the end, the game killed him.
I pass a computer monitor on my way to the door. I can see the room reflected in its screen, and I’m still not there. I glance at the floor behind me—I don’t even cast a shadow. Whatever this is—dream, hallucination or memory—I know only one thing for certain: Kat’s here somewhere, and I have to find her.
I don’t know who needs to be rescued. Maybe it’s her—but it might be me. The panic keeps building. It’s pushing me forward. I rush out of the morgue and into the main part of the
facility, then skid to a stop. Ahead of me is a wall of boxes with hexagonal windows. These are the life-support capsules where the Company stores the people whose minds they’ve imprisoned in Otherworld. It looks like the corporation has expanded its operation since the last time I was here. There must be hundreds of thousands of capsules by now, stacked on top of each other and rising up into the sky.
In the center of the wall is an opening—the entrance to a maze. There’s a middle-aged man lying on the floor in front of it, blood gushing from a bullet wound in his arm. As I close in on him, I notice that his eyes remain open. The man doesn’t see me, but he might not be dead. He works for the Company, though I have no idea what he does. All I know is that his name is Wayne Gibson. He’s Kat’s stepfather. And I was the one who shot him.
I step over Wayne’s body, resisting the urge to give it a kick, and enter the maze. Walls of stacked capsules tower over me on either side. Inside each capsule is a human being. I glance into one as I pass by and recognize the swollen, purple carcass of a guy my age. The car accident the Company arranged for Marlow Holm and his mother must have been brutal. Mrs. Holm’s corpse is probably back at the morgue. Somehow Marlow survived. Now they have his mind trapped in Otherworld. I wonder which of the Holms was the lucky one.
I pick up my pace and try not to look into any more of the capsules. The path in front of me keeps branching in different directions. I don’t know where I’m going, so I stick to the left. After a while, I start to think the maze might be unsolvable. Every new bit looks the same as the last. I’m about to collapse from exhaustion when I turn a corner and find myself at a juncture. The path ahead has split again, but this time there’s a statue blocking the left side. The tall Clay Man has a Bedouin scarf wrapped around his head and a glowing amulet dangling against his chest. One of his arms is raised, with a finger pointing toward the passage on the right.
“It’s you,” I gasp. The Clay Man is Busara Ogubu’s Otherworld avatar. I’m so relieved to find her that I almost forget that she can’t be trusted. Busara was the one who got me into this mess. She risked my life and others for her own selfish reasons. Still, it’s impossible to hate her. If it weren’t for Busara’s scheming, there’s little doubt Kat would already be dead.
“Busara,” I say. If her avatar can hear me, he shows no desire to communicate. Then it dawns on me that the finger may be the only message I need.
I choose the path to the right.
I try not to think morbid thoughts while I run. I try not to imagine what might be happening to Kat. I try not to envision my life without her.
Then, all at once, I find myself at the center of the maze. There’s a wide-open space here, and it’s packed with remarkable beings. Some are giants, others tiny and delicate. A few look almost human, but most can only be described as hideous. No two of them are exactly alike. These are the Children, the creations of Otherworld, the digital offspring of parents whose DNA wasn’t meant to mix. When they first appeared, Milo tried to get rid of them—until he realized the Children were every bit as alive as he was.
Above, thousands of captive humans are looking down from the capsules, their faces pressed up against the glass. I came here to find Kat; now I won’t be able to leave without helping them, too. There are now thousands of people and an entire species depending on Simon Eaton, fuckup extraordinaire, to rescue them.
And yet no one notices that I’m here. They’re all staring at a spot on one of the walls. Somehow I know that whatever is there is what I’ve been looking for. I weave through the crowd, and when I reach the front I see guards standing on either side of one of the capsules. Their faces are blandly handsome, their bodies buff, and both of them are armed to the teeth. They look a lot like the non-player characters in Otherworld.
No one in the crowd dares to challenge them. It’s clear they’ll die if they do. The guards can’t see me, though. If Kat’s in there, this is my chance to save her.
As I walk up to the glass, I pray I’m not too late. It’s not until I’m standing between the two guards that I realize everything is all wrong. The person inside the capsule isn’t Kat. The body doesn’t even belong to a female. Lying on the stainless steel shelf is a tall, pasty kid with a giant nose. I suppose I’m still not used to seeing him with no hair. It takes me a moment to recognize myself.
I spin around to face the Children who are staring straight through me. I see why they’re all here. They came for me. I was supposed to help them. But now that they’ve found me, I’m just a huge disappointment. They’re all going to die. I won’t be saving anyone.
“Why are you so upset?” A man wearing a garish 1960s suit and a brown fedora steps forward. He’s the only one here who can see me. It makes sense, I suppose. I’m the only one who ever sees him. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” my dead grandfather snorts. “You always said you weren’t the One.”
I’m about to respond when something whizzes through the air past my ear. I hear an oof and a thud. One of the NPC guards just hit the ground. I’m looking straight at the second guy when an arrow gets him right through the temple.
I catch sight of Kat’s hair in the crowd. Her camouflage bodysuit leaves the rest of her little more than a blur.
“Kat!” I call out to her, but she must not hear me.
She rushes past me to the capsule and yanks open the door. Kat slides out the shelf with my body on top. I stand by and watch as the girl I’ve loved since I was eight years old bends over my motionless body.
“Simon,” she whispers. “Remember who you are.”
I see my body twitch as if it’s coming back to life.
“Simon,” Kat says. “It’s time. Open your eyes.”
I open my eyes. I’m in a hotel room in Texas. Kat is asleep beside me.
Tags: otherearth, Otherworld, Virtual Reality
28-30 July 2017
The Young Adult Literary Convention (or YALC) is a massive annual celebration of the best young adult books from around the world. Thousands of book lovers and authors descend on the London Film and Comic Con and we were absolutely thrilled to be there again this year. It was a chance to meet big authors like Rhian Ivory and Philip Womack. We even spotted actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Lucas wandering around…
It was a whirlwind few days, with three of our fabulous authors – Olivia Levez (The Island, The Circus), Nikki Sheehan (Swan Boy, Goodnight Boy) and Sarah Mussi (Room Empty) – hosting workshops and participating in panel discussions before signing copies of their books. Meeting the people who love your books is such an exciting part of the writing and publishing process.
This year was particularly exciting for us as we revealed shiny, early reading copies of our big new title for autumn, Otherworld by writer and actor Jason Segel and author Kirsten Miller. This is the first in a fast-paced sci-fi and gaming trilogy that we are obsessing over here at Rock the Boat. The story centres around 18-year-old Simon, who has always used gaming as a way to escape his tedious life. When a top-of-the-range virtual reality game called Otherworld launches to a select few gamers, he can’t wait to get his hands on a headset. But behind the incredible graphics lurks a very real danger. And soon Simon finds himself battling through wondrous and terrifying realms to save his only friend Kat. At its heart, this engaging thriller asks the question we’ll all soon be asking: if technology can deliver everything we want, how much are we willing to pay?
Otherworld isn’t out until 31 October 2017, but some lucky YALC-goers managed to get their hands on the limited edition, dazzling proofs. We held daily raffles and book blogger giveaways via twitter throughout . It was great to see the buzz generated both at YALC and online. Even Jason Segel was getting in on the action, liking and re-tweeting posts by the raffle winners and bloggers who took to social media to voice their enthusiasm!
The response has been amazing, with some incredible reviews from YALC bloggers already online. Blogger Queen of Geekdom wrote: ‘I came to the novel hoping to have it compete for my love of Ready Player One. What I got was so much more… This is a book that has been missing from my reading life for a long time.’ The Tween Book Blog has said ‘I was literally reading it everywhere, on the bus, at the playground, whilst I was walking and in shops… you couldn’t put it down.’ We love that they enjoyed it as much as we do, and can’t wait for more fo you to experience this brilliant new world Jason and Kirsten have created!
It is always such a treat going to YALC, engaging with you, the readers, and seeing your excitement and support for our lovely and talented authors. The convention really pulses with high spirits throughout the weekend. YALC is a great reminder of why we do what we do and a fantastic opportunity to connect with fellow book lovers.
We spoke to one fan in particular who had sat down and read the entirety of AJ Steiger’s gripping Mindwalker in one sitting at the convention last year! That is real dedication…
Until next year YALC, it was a pleasure.
Did you know that 92% of chart songs talk about sex? I didn’t until I read Girls & Sex by journalist Peggy Orenstein (out in October). If you look at today’s panicked headlines, it might sound like we have an epidemic on our hands: ‘casual hook-up culture invades universities’ and ‘primary school boys watching porn’. It’s little wonder we all think everyone else is at it! Refusing to buy into all the scare-mongering, Peggy decided to reach out to girls at high school and university and ask them the questions very few parents dare to ask. The results are both fascinating and frightening.
What she discovered was a large gap between perception and reality. Young people overestimate the amount of bed-hopping that actually goes on among their peers. They are not, in fact, having more sex now than in previous generations. What has changed, though, is that relationships are more likely to begin with physical intimacy than with a date. What, so no blushing over a coffee, or touching hands as you both simultaneously dive into the same bag of cinema popcorn, or grabbing a bite to eat that may or may not end with an awkward kiss goodnight? But that’s the best bit!
I’m not the only one who thinks that: Peggy cites one university survey in which 70% believed their fellow students only wanted casual hook-ups. But in reality, nearly 75% of boys and 80% of girls said they’d prefer a date to a hook-up. And nearly 80% of students said they would like to be in a loving relationship. These findings are borne out in Dana Reinhardt’s brilliant Tell Us Something True, when 17-year-old River falls apart after his girlfriend Penny decides to dump him. Until, that is, he finds someone else to be the object of his affection, the damaged but loveable Daphne, even lying about having an addiction just so he can see her at group therapy sessions. Aaah.
Peggy’s findings warmed my heart. Love isn’t dead! Most young people today crave it just as much as they always have. So where has this outwardly casual attitude towards sex come from? One answer suggested in Girls & Sex is porn. It’s an industry that has had serious consequences in terms of the way young people interact – and view themselves. Especially girls. So many of them share stories about how hard it is to get male attention and affection, while also avoiding conflict or being labelled. As one girl said: “every girl’s goal is to be just slutty enough, where you’re not a prude, but you’re not a whore”. What a complicated balancing act; I bet hardly anyone succeeds. What success in relationships might actually look like is another issue raised in the book – the popular baseball metaphor of reaching first base, second base, third and fourth makes physical intimacy sound like a game – one with opposing teams, winners and losers.
So who are the losers here? The young women in Girls & Sex are mostly strong and confident, but when it comes to relationships, it often goes out of the window. They feel such pressure to act in a certain way; a way that puts a man’s needs and desires before their own.
The struggle is real in Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces (out in October), the heart-breaking story of Charlie, a teenage girl battling with her identity after suffering sexual abuse in the past. But as she pieces herself back together, her story offers hope to anyone who feels lost amidst all the expectations and pressures, and provides the building blocks to become strong and empowered women. Just like Kady, the gutsy, fearless and crazily smart heroine in Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s trilogy The Iluminae Files (the second book, Gemina, is out in October). Don’t we all wish that for ourselves and for our daughters?
Decades of progress in gender equality have been made in the workplace and in politics. Now it needs to be recognised behind closed doors and underneath the bed covers too. This is what Peggy hopes to do with her book; by starting a conversation between parents and their sons and daughters, and among young people themselves, she hopes the world will wake up and take notice, and not let the internet and chart hits decide our relationships for us. Because, as Peggy warns, ‘as long as adults still avoid open discussion of sexuality, teens will inevitably seek information on today’s electronic street corner’.
Fortunately, books can be a great source of inspiration to encourage us not to follow the digital herd.
A Review of “Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams
I don’t really know what I was expecting from a Richard Adams book. Adams’s reputation for gory gut wrenches featuring four legged protagonists is inescapable. In an alternate universe, this might even be a review of Adams’s similar story, Watership Down. There are clear parallels between the two novels: both feature animal protagonists; both are very dark; and one of the main characters from Plague Dogs, Snitter, shares similar brain damage symptoms to the character, Fiver, from Watership Down.
A novel being narrated from the point of view of an animal is nothing new; however, I initially found it jarring to read a novel told from the point of view of two dogs. Suffice to say, I got over this hang-up sooner than expected and, in fact, grew to like it. There’s a line towards the beginning of the novel in which one of the two canine protagonists talks about a “Whitecoat making the gesture to create light”. Obviously, this is a person in a white lab coat using their hand to turn on a light switch, but from a dog’s point of view, magic is being performed. Adams’s treatment of moments such as this is touching without being cliched or cutesy. Crucially, it provided the reassurance I had hoped for that my time would be well spent and no doubt about it, he’s an expert storyteller who writes with skill and style, and his chosen point of view – the two dogs – appeared pretty quickly for what it is: a master stroke.
I’m not a particularly sentimental person but even I grew to care about and root for the book’s canine heroes, Rowf & Snitter. These are two dogs used for – frankly – inhumane experiments, and who make a miraculous escape in an attempt to hide from those who would seek to return them to captivity. Along the way they are helped by Tod, a fox with a thick Scottish accent (how cool is that!) and they encounter a naturalist, Sir Peter Markham Scott, who helps the justifiably jaded Rowf to understand that not all humans are bad.
But this is no mushy sentimental book – by any stretch of the imagination. Those familiar with Adams’s work will understand that it is bleak and painful and tragic: an emotional runaway train ride. Brace yourself for an ending which is nothing short of shocking. But that’s a good thing because it reveals Adams’s supreme skill in reaching us to the point that we truly care about these characters. Although I shed no tears, I have spoken to people who have said that they were physically unable to read the ending, and others who did said that they could never read the book again.
Part of the reason everything hits so hard in Plague Dogs is because the world we are invited to inhabit feels so real. Not an easy feat when the main characters are talking dogs. Adams’s writing style is graceful yet packs a mighty punch; it’s dark but somehow dazzles.
If I can’t give Plague Dogs a resounding ovation, it is simply because it’s not the genre of book I normally go for. That said, I know a good book when I read one.
Go buy it.